With some deep breathing to clear his head of his fear, then some careful words in the right ears, Paul managed to secure his freedom by midnight. His only crime was Lorna's behaviour, after all, although he had no doubt been responsible for her at the time. The manager could be persuaded to overlook it for a promised favour in return. Promise given, Paul walked free.
Paul stood on the threshold of the Justice building, the cool of the night air calling to him. Across the street, residents of the buildings looming above them had gathered in an emptying market square. Faint strains of music wafted through the dim night-time traffic, teasing him. Like bees in a hive, the gathering people synchronised in their movements til they were shifting and stepping as one. Three neat rows of line-dancers, united in serene thought and liquid motion. Like ocean waves. Like they were all plugged into the same CPU. They probably were.
Paul watched in silence, still standing in the doorway. He couldn't decide if he watched a display of a close-knit, tranquil community, or a brain-washed, mindless colony. He couldn't decide if he felt a part of it or not. The breeze tasted strangely of salt. He'd never noticed that before. A sudden longing for fresh air washed over him.
With a sigh, he turned and went back to find Lorna.
He expected to find her curled in a ball in the corner. Possibly crying. Hopefully asleep. Instead, he found her draped over a chair in her cell, giggling at a console, an empty bottle of Mou Tai hanging from a limp hand. It looked like she had been able to swap some favours of her own. He forced the ensuing images from his mind.
"Hi Paul!" Her words slurred, her vowels were long and drawn out, and yet, filled with an irrepressible energy. Oh god…
"This is way better than space. Look!" She waved towards the screen. "Apparently, an internet connection is a basic human right now."
"Well, of course," he said. Where the hell did she get that energy from? It wasn't just alcohol-derived. It was like she was driven by some uncrushable impulse. "Solitary isolation is only for especially grievous crimes."
Lorna looked around her bare cell, and realised she had a different idea of solitary to him.
He edged a little closer. "Hey, how did you do that?" Satellite images of the city, liveupdate maps of the country crowded the screen.
"Told you before. I don't need re-skilling. I'm already skilled."
He narrowed his eyes at the chaos of information flooding the screen. "What are you doing?"
"Crashing the known world." She giggled, a hiccup disturbing the rhythm.
"Come on, you read my file. I'm a hacker."
"Tomayto, tomahto. This is my job." She flicked at the screen with shaky fingernails. "You'd think we'd just roll over and die? No one is prouder than the US. Damn straight." She nodded, large, exaggerated movements. "The nation that once had the power to blow up the world fifty times over is just going to put up their hands? I give up? You win? Not fucking likely."
"Ok…" Drunk, he thought. Very drunk.
A chuckle escaped past her haughty face. "We cooked up the juiciest little piece of biotechnological warfare. Part virus, part meme, oh it's just the sweetest little fucker you ever did see. We called it, get this, TSOOHC."
Her eyes narrowed at him. "No, no, that's its name. TSOOHC: the sound of one hand clapping. It's Zen or something. Supposed to paralysis your brain, or…" Her free hand flailed in his general direction as she checked the screens. "Anyway, it will spread into every connected device faster than the worst known super-virus. Highly pathogenic ain't the half of it."
"You set loose a virus?"
She turned with bovine slowness to eye him. "Uh, yuh-huh?"
"Net Police will catch it."
She shook her head happily. "It's undetectable, and it's spread with ever single connection. Every status update. Every message. Every god damn click!"
"They'll search it out, they'll isolate it-"
Laughter assaulted his ears. "There'd be more messages to search than man/hours left on the planet. And with every contact they'll only spread it faster. It'll spread way too quick for anyone to do anything. I mean, information transfer has only got exponentially faster since they invented this! It's even more perfect!"
The light of the screen bathed her triumphant face. He found himself still denying the possible truth of her words. It spoke of a future too different to contemplate. He didn't want to think about what it would mean. His hand clutched the back of her chair, holding him firmly in the present.
"I was doing it when I got caught, you know," she went on. "You don't usually find programmers on the front lines do you? It was an accident, of course. Everything was in place. But then a mortar hit the power generator."
Paul hands gripped tighter. She was drunk. Yes, that was it. She was mad. It was late, and none of this was real. He found her starting at him, waiting. He nodded wisely, stalling. Playing along. "Ah, that old chestnut. No power, no computer, no nothing."
"No, no." She waved away his words. "We had back-up systems, it was fine, but a cable was broken in the impact. I had to get out there and reconnect, and-"
Her swaying gaze was hooked by something on the screen. "Shit."
"What." His fingers tightened and curled.
"The Russians." She stared at the screen. Paul decided she didn't mean him personally. "The damn Russians!"
"What is it?" He edged closer, scanning the windows filled with line after frantic line of programming languages.
She was laughing. "I've never known a people to be so obstinate in their medievilness! And it works for them every time! First people in space, first people in orbit-"
"Lorna, calm down."
She peered at him, her laughter swallowed in an instant, seeming to notice for the first time the Slavic narrowness to his eyes, his cheekbones, his thinnish lips. The forehead that screamed White Russia.
"My grandparents were Russian," he acknowledged, answering the interrogation of her eyes. A memory of his Babushka smiling at him and proffering soup interrupted his thoughts
"Interesting," she murmured, still searching his face. A beep from the screen pulled her away.
"But we're all China now," he went on, his eyes far in the past.
"Not for long." Her chuckle resurfaced. "Do you know what? We spent millions, millions, on developing technology to make pens work in space. No gravity, you know? The ink, it doesn't come down." Her laughter broke free, pockmarked by hiccups. The guards would be complaining about the noise soon. He patted her arm awkwardly. The situation was that dire.
"You know what the Russians did?" she went on, glancing at him with a rueful smile. "They used a pencil!"
He waited. She chuckled. He had to ask. "Ok, and that has to do with this, how exactly?"
The bottle slammed onto the table. "Everything is connected. Everyone is connected. Do you know what the broadband penetration of the world is, at the moment? I Iooked it up. Everyone is digital.
"Except!" Her finger rose to silence him. "Except, the God Damn Russians."
"Come on," he scoffed, knowing now she was truly insane. "Russia is practically synonymous for 'illegal download'! All of Siberia is one big techno addict. I mean seriously, what else is there to do up there?"
"Yes, yes! They are clever aren't they? They keep up with the new, but they never throw out the old." She sat forward, grabbing his hands. "This program, this meme-virus, it will create a logjam of binary that will error message anything connected to the internet. Computers. Phones. Heads of state. Prisoners. Anything!"
His hands grew limp in hers as the scale of the impact dilated his mind. "Oh my god…"
"But… but!" She squeezed him sharply so he focused on her again. "The Russians have backup systems that still use physical binary switches, do you get me?" A chuckle escaped despite her attempts to focus. "It's so archaic its hilarious. But they've kept them. They kept them, and now they will have the only machines with any sort of computational ability left on the entire planet."
His eyes were round and staring. His mouth opened, but nothing emerged, save a threat of drool.
"How's your Russian?" Lorna grinned at him.
"A little rusty." His voice came out high and somewhat squeaky.
She giggled. "Might want to brush up. Those grandparents of yours might come in handy, huh?"
She glanced back at the screen. She cocked her head. The sudden quiet struck him like a blow.
"Are there some factories around here?" she asked.
"Where's that smoke coming from?" A slender finger pointed at the smudge on the screen's satellite image. Her finger trailed to map after map. "Shit, it's all over the place. Xinjiang. The Stans. Tibet. Mongolia. Amur. Korea." She turned to him. "Everyone's attacking at once. My God, it's an uprising!"
"It's a blitzkrieg," he said, shock cutting his voice to a whisper.
"How the hell did they organise this?" Lorna murmured, typing like a maniac. "What the fuck? What kind of text is this? Nothing is translating."
Paul looked closer. "It's the ancient languages. Uighur, Tibetan - No one knows it but them. They may as well be speaking in Navajo."
"Fantastic," Lorna breathed, delighted. She spun around. "Ooh, ooh! This is one of those whaddyacallits. Tipping points!" Her eyes shone. "And my meme-virus is sure going to level the playing field." Even as she spoke, some of the windows open on her screen were slowing, freezing, losing signal.
Paul's gaze was still locked on the remaining image of smoke devouring larger and larger sections of the blocks around them. The city suddenly seemed to him as hospitable as a lake of salt. "Whatever. We've got to get out of here."
"Are you kidding? Prison's gotta be the safest place in the city."
"Not for long." An undeniable urge was driving him North. He had to get out of here. The fresh streams of his childhood called him like sirens. "You think the Chinese will bother feeding you when there's a civil war to fight?"
"Good point. You can get me out?"
I can only try, he thought bleakly, but just nodded.
"So where are we going?" Her eyes lit up with the possibility off escape, of adventure.
"North," he said. Home.
She grinned. "Hey, I'm cool with that. Just a hop skip and a jump over the Bering Strait to Alaska, so it's on my way home anyways."
She grabbed his hand, and he helped pull her to her feet.
Her smile had regained its mischievous twist. "So Paul, wanna take me home tonight?"
His smile was grim, but he nodded, pulling her with him as he strided for the door.
"Let's go home."
The journey from the ocean to the sweet freshwater streams of their birth is a long and perilous one for the syomga. Many predators await them along their path. Not all who start the journey will make it. But the fact that, despite everything, some do, is one of the recurring miracles of nature. Life goes on, however impossible the odds. And home is always home, no matter how far you wander.